"Servant" or "Deacon" in Romans 16:1?

"I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea:" (Romans 16:1, KJV)

It is alleged that the KJV discriminates against Phebe, a woman, by translating the Greek word describing her, διακονον, as "servant" rather than "deacon". This allegation, of course, assumes that a "deacon" is a more dignified word than "servant". The ESV, NASB and NIV 1984 also describe Phebe as a servant rather than deacon. For there to be discrimination, however, it must be demonstrated that the KJV (and these other translations with "servant" at Romans 16:1) routinely translates διάκονος as "deacon" for males while translating the same word as "servant" only for Phebe, a woman. But such cannot be demonstrated.

In the KJV, the word "deacon(s)" only appears five times, that is, at Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12 and 13. In each occurrence, the word "deacon" is used because it is obvious that the office of a deacon is in view, not any particular individual. In Philippians 1:1 the word διακονοις is obviously a title because it appears alongside the word "bishops". In the four occurrences in 1 Timothy, "deacon(s)" appears because the passage is clearly speaking of the office of deacons. The verb form διακονέω, translated as "use(d) the office of a deacon" at 1 Timothy 3:10 and 13, is translated as "serve" in Acts 6:2 where males (ανδρας) are selected.

As for the KJV translating διάκονος as "minister" in reference to males (e.g. Christ at Romans 15:8, Epaphras at Colossians 1:7, Paul at Colossians 1:23, Tychicus at Colossians 4:7, Timothy at 1 Thessalonians 3:2), this in no way demonstrates any sexism on the part of the KJV translators. The KJV uses "minister" interchangeably with "servant" to translate διάκονος in related or parallel passages, even in the same book, as follows:

  • Matthew 20:26: "But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;"

  • Matthew 23:11: "But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant."

  • Mark 9:35: "And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all."

  • Mark 10:43: "But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:"

This shows that in the mind of the KJV translators, "minister" was no more a dignified word than "servant". This is the biblical view of the position of a minister. It is obvious that in Matthew 20:26 and Mark 10:43 "minister" refers to a position of servitude and humility. Moreover, sexist motives are not behind the use of "minister" in one place in Matthew and Mark and "servant" in another place in Matthew and Mark. The interchangeability is perhaps only stylistic in purpose. Thus the KJV's descriptions of men such as Epaphras and Tychicus as being "ministers" in no way exalts them above a woman such as Phebe who is described as a "servant". It is the modern translations that have erroneously elevated the position of a minister by replacing "minister" with "servant" in Matthew 20:26 and Mark 10:43, and using "minister" only for those seemingly dignified roles held by prominent individuals such as Paul and Timothy. The KJV cannot be faulted for calling Phebe a "servant" because the internal dictionary of the KJV equates her with a "minister".

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